Rachel Harrington, Learning Targets

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support

Rounding Up: Season 1 | Episode 5 

Whether it’s creating “I can statements” or developing success criteria, there’s no denying that writing learning targets is a part of teacher practice. Today, Dr. Rachel Harrington from Western Oregon University talks about creating powerful and productive learning goals that impact student learning.

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If you’re interested in more on this topic, consider the following article for further reading:
Mathematics Learning Goals Serve as a Guide


Mike Wallus: As a 17-year-veteran classroom teacher, I can't even begin to count the number of learning targets that I've written over the years. Whether it's writing ‘I can’ statements or developing success criteria, there's no denying that writing learning targets is an important part of teacher practice. That said, the thinking about what makes a strong learning target continues to evolve and the language that we select for those targets has implications for instructional practice. Today on the podcast, we're talking with Dr. Rachel Harrington from Western Oregon University about creating powerful and productive learning targets. Welcome to the podcast. 

Rachel Harrington: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here. 

Mike: Sure. So I'd love to just start our conversation by having you talk a little bit about how the ideas around learning targets have evolved, even just in the course of your own teaching career. 

Rachel: I started out as a pre-service teacher in the late ’90s and got a lot of practice in undergrad teacher education, thinking about writing those objectives. And we were always told to start with, ‘The student will be able to … , ’ and then we needed to have some skill and then it needed to end with a percentage of performance. So we need percent of accuracy. And so I got a lot of practice writing things that way, and we always were very strategic with our percentages. We might say 80 percent because we planned to give them five questions at the end and we wanted four out of five to be correct. And then we could check the box that the students had done what we wanted. And I felt like it was really critical. We always were kind of drilled into us that it must be measurable. You have to be able to measure that objective. And so that percentage was really important. 

Rachel: In my experience though, as a teacher, that, that didn't feel as helpful. And it wasn't something that I did as a classroom teacher very often. As I transitioned into working in teacher preparation, now we have shifted the way we talk about things. Instead of saying a learning objective, we talk more about learning targets. And we talk about using active verbs that, when we phrase the learning target or the learning goal, it's using a verb that is more active and not so much ‘Student will be able to … .’ And so we might use verbs like compare, explain, classify, analyze, thinking more about that. And then, rather than thinking about an assessment at the end, with five questions where they get four correct, we want to think about multiple times throughout the lesson where the teacher is assessing that learning goal and the progress towards that goal. Sometimes those assessments might be more classroom-based. Other times you might be looking more at an individual student and collecting data on their progress as well. But it's more progress towards a goal rather than something that's met at the end of the lesson with a certain percentage of accuracy. 

Mike: You named the thing that I think stood out for me, which is you're moving from a process where you're thinking about an outcome versus what's the action, be that cognitive or in the way that students are solving. The focus is really on what's happening and how it's happening as opposed to just an outcome. 

Rachel: Uh-hm. And I feel like when I started in teacher preparation, the standards were a little more siloed by grade level. It was sort of like, this is what we do in fourth grade and it starts and ends in fourth grade. Whereas with the Common Core State Standards, we see these learning progressions that stretch across the child's whole math experience. And so I think that's shifted a little bit the way we think about targets as well and learning goals and whatever title you've given them. Now, we don't think so much as, ‘What are you accomplishing at the end of today?’ but sort of your progress across a learning progression and, and what progress are you making towards a longer-term goal? 

Mike: I think that's a really profound shift though. There are two things that come to mind: One is really thinking about how that impacts my practice as a teacher. If I'm just thinking about what happens at the end of today, in all of these little discreet iterations, versus what's the pathway that the child is on, right? I'm really interested in, how is their thinking shifting? And that the end of the day is not the end of that shift. It's really something that happens over time. Does that make sense to you? 

Rachel: Definitely. And I think it's really critical when we're teaching in a mixed-ability classroom, and we're thinking about children making progress at their own pace and not expecting every child to learn the same thing every single day, but we can have individual goals for our kids. We can have ideas about, as long as they are making progress in their math journey, then we're going to be OK with that. And we're helping them in that progress. And I think it's also more evidence as to why curriculum needs to cycle back to previously taught concepts because those concepts may or may not be mastered by all the children or understood by all the children at the end of the lesson. We're going to keep revisiting it. And children get multiple opportunities to think about this idea, and they will make progress on their own at their pace. 

Mike: Well, that's in stark contrast to my own childhood math experiences. You got through your unit on fractions in fourth grade, and … 

Rachel: Yep. 

Mike: … if you didn't get it, well … 

Rachel: So sad. 

Mike: .. good, good luck in fifth grade! 

Rachel: (laughs) 

Mike: (laughs) Um, but it's really an entirely different way of thinking about the child's development of ideas. 

Rachel: Yep. I remember teaching multiplication of fractions on a Monday followed by a division of fractions on a Tuesday. It was really just like, you know, when we moved past this idea that multiplication of fractions is a procedure that, that students will master. Then we need to start thinking about it as happening more than just on Monday. 

Mike: We've already started to address the second question I had, which is: What are some of the pitfalls that schools and teachers might fall into or might encounter when they're thinking about learning targets? 

Rachel: I think some folks have put pressure on teachers to take the idea of a learning target and phrase it into an ‘I can’ statement or a student-friendly language—which, I am not at all opposed to the idea of making things into student-friendly language. I think that's actually really critical in math class. 

Mike: Uh-hm. 

Rachel: But I think it can be problematic. When we start the lesson with an ‘I can’ statement, are we giving away the ending of the lesson right at the beginning? 

Mike: Yeah. 

Rachel: Are we taking away their joy of that discovery and that excitement of finding out this, understanding this new concept? I don't want to remove that magic out of math class by just saying, ‘Hey, I'm going to tell you the ending right before we get started.’ And I also worry a little bit that sometimes those ‘I can’ statements and those things that we put up on the board at the beginning of class are done under the guise of ‘holding teachers accountable,’ which I think is a phrase that is very (chuckles) problematic. 

Rachel: I tend to err on the side of trusting teachers; that they can be trusted to know what they're doing in the classroom and that they have a goal in mind. And I assume that they are planning for teaching without telling me exactly and explicitly on the whiteboard that they are doing that. But I also recognize that the presence of that learning target or that ‘I can’ statement on the board at the beginning is an easy thing to check off. All of the different things that are happening in math class are really complex and really hard to understand and notice. And it can take years and tons of experience before we're able to notice all the things that are happening. And so as an administrator that maybe has limited experience teaching mathematics, I could see where it would be difficult coming into the classroom and really being able to recognize what is happening. You might look around the room and be like, ‘Is this some kind of birthday party? What's going on? All these kids are cutting things out and gluing things. This doesn't look like math class.’ 

Rachel: But if I can see that statement written up on the board, that's something that's kind of concrete and measurable. I also just think this idea of capturing learning as a daily objective can be problematic, especially when we're thinking about building really complex ideas in mathematics. You know, that's not going to happen in one lesson, in one session of curriculum. It might build over multiple days. It might cycle back into multiple units. And so we need to make sure that students are developing alongside their peers and, but maybe not out at the same pace. And I think that's OK. 

Mike: Yeah. You made me think about a couple different things, Rachel. One is the idea that the way that learning targets have been kind of introduced into classrooms really feels more like compliance as opposed to something that has value in terms of your instructional practice. And I, I've lived that world, too, as a classroom teacher. I think the other thing that really hits me from what you said is, I started thinking about whole-number multiplication, right? If I'm just thinking about the end product—meaning students being able to perform multiplication—there's so much richness that has been missed (chuckles) in that process. 

Rachel: (chuckles) 

Mike: I mean, we're trying to help children move from thinking additively to thinking multiplicatively. You're going to move along that kind of continuum of understanding over time. Honestly, I would say it shouldn't happen in one day. 

Rachel: Yeah. What can you really learn in just one lesson? And learn, not, I wouldn't say just perform a skill. 

Mike: Yeah. 

Rachel: I think skills, performing a skill and memorizing an algorithm, that is something that can be taught in a really concrete chunk of time, potentially. But the real conceptual understanding of what's happening with multiplication—how it's connected to addition, how it's connected to geometric concepts and things like that—that all comes and builds. And I feel like it also builds in fits and spurts. Some kids are going to make a big leap at one point and then make some smaller steps before they make another big leap. It's not a linear progression that … 

Mike: Right. 

Rachel: … they're going through. And so we have to allow that to happen and give room for that to happen. And if we say everyone in the class will do this by the end of the lesson with this amount of accuracy, we don't make room for that to happen. 

Mike: Yeah. I think what you're highlighting is the difference between what I would call like a learning goal and a performance goal. And I'm wondering if you could help unpack that. Because for me, when I started thinking about learning targets in that framework, it really opened my eyes to some of the places where I'd gotten it right in the classroom and some of the places where, boy, I wish I had a do over. 

Rachel: Yeah. I think the language that the National Council of Teachers in Mathematics has brought to us, is this idea of contrasting performance goals with learning goals. And I find myself turning to the ‘Taking Action’ series of books. Specifically, K–5 when we're thinking about elementary. There's a chapter of that book I have found to be really powerful. Sadly, I think it's one that we can sometimes gloss over a little bit in our reading. Because for some folks, they look at that and they say, ‘Well, I don't choose the learning goal. My curriculum chooses the learning goal or my school district tells me what the learning goal is.’ But when you really look at what a learning goal is, as opposed to a performance goal, that's really not what's dictated by your curriculum or by your school district. And so in the ‘Taking Action’ book, I think they do a really nice job of contrasting the difference between a learning goal and a performance goal. And I would say a performance goal is sort of what I described earlier when I was talking about ‘The student will be able to … ’ 

Mike: Uh-hm. Yeah. 

Rachel: … at a certain amount of accuracy. So, an example. If you do have access to the book, it talks about ‘Students will solve a variety of multiplication word problems and write the related multiplication equations.’ And (given) that, I could see that as the type of thing I would've written maybe with a certain amount of accuracy (laughs) at the end of it. And I would've given them maybe five word problems and then assessed if they could get at least four out of the five correct equations. And so that's a really good example of a performance goal. And, and they talk about this idea of a performance is, what is the student doing? What's something that we can look and observe and measure and count. 

Mike: That's so hard though! Because what's missing in that goal is ‘how’! 

Rachel: Right. 

Mike: You know (laughs), like … 

Rachel: Or ‘why’! (laughs) 

Mike: (laughs) Or ‘why’! Right? 

Rachel: Yep, yep. 

Mike: Like when you actually look at the student's work, what does that tell you about how they arrived there? And then what does that tell you about what that child needs to continue making sense of mathematics? You gave an example of a performance goal around multiplication and word problems. What might that sound like as a learning goal instead? 

Rachel: So an example of that same—probably aligned to the exact same standard and the Common Core State Standards—would be that students will understand the structure of multiplication as comprising equal groups, within visual or physical representations, understand numbers and multiplication equations, and connect those representations to equations. So that learning goal really describes what you're hoping the students learn. Not just what they do, but what do they carry forward with them as they move into more and more complex mathematics? I think you'll also recognize the verbs in there are much more complex. In the previous performance goal, we talked about students solving and writing. They’re solving, and they’re writing. But in the learning goal, we're looking at understanding, connecting, and representing those different ways of thinking about it and bringing them together. Putting those pieces together. And again, that might be something that develops over a long period of time. They might be working on one piece of it, which is looking at an array and connecting that to an equation. But maybe later on, they're connecting the context of the task to the equation. Or they're taking a context and recognizing, ‘Wouldn’t an array model be a great way to solve this? And wouldn’t an equation model be a great way to solve this?’ 

Mike: Uh-hm. 

Rachel: And that's really developing over time. 

Mike: Yeah. I was just going to say, you mentioned ‘Taking Action.’ The, the chapter on learning goals is actually my most dogeared, uh, chapter in the book. I want to read you something that I think is really powerful though. Very first chapter on learning goals, the way that they describe it is: ‘Identifying what students will come to understand about mathematics rather than focusing on what students will do.’ I've read that, underlined it, highlighted it. And I've got a Post-It note on that page because I think it just fundamentally changes what I think my role is as a teacher in preparing and also in a moment with children. 

Rachel: Yep. It's not so much about, they're going to be able to cut this out and do this thing and perform this action. But it's really, what's the purpose? Why are we doing this? Why would they cut that out? Why would they do this action? What is that contributing to their long-term understanding? I do appreciate NCTM’s guidance on this. I think they're leading the pack. And this is really cutting-edge … 

Mike: Yeah. 

Rachel: … thinking about how we set goals for our classroom. It's not commonly held in the field or applied in the field yet. 

Mike: Uh-hm. 

Rachel: But I think folks are really starting to understand its importance. That if, as we change the way we teach mathematics and the outcomes we expect for students, we have to start thinking differently about how we set up learning goals. We can't keep having these performance goals and expecting what's happening in the classroom to change. If we're really going to go towards the type of instruction we want to see in a classroom, we've got to think about learning goals instead of focus so much on just performance. 

Mike: I actually had a chance to talk to DeAnn Huinker, who's one of the co-writers of ‘Taking Action,’ and she used the phrase, ‘What are the mathematical conversations you want children to have?’ And I was really struck by, like, that's a really interesting question for me to think about if I'm thinking about my learning goals. But even if I'm just thinking about planning and preparing for a lesson or a unit of study. 

Rachel: Definitely. I don't think that's something that's thought a lot about. I mean, I might see for my students and their lesson plan: ‘Turn and talk to your neighbor.’ But if you don't really think carefully about what kind of conversation you want to happen during that turn and talk … . Or I'll see in their lesson plan that ‘We will have a discussion about students’ various solutions.’ And what does that mean? You know, what’s going to happen in that time? What's the point … 

Mike: Uh-hm. 

Rachel: … of that time? I can't remember who, I think it was Elham Kazemi that said something once about, ‘In math class folks will present,’ and it's like that old football cheer, you know, ‘stand up, sit down, clap, clap, clap.’ That's what we do in math class. 

Mike: Yeah. 

Rachel: We have kids stand up, we sit down, we all politely listen, and then we clap. And that's it. We move on. But if you really focus on those conversations that you want kids to have, what are the interesting things that you want them to be thinking about? That's a complete shift in how we've taught math. 

Mike: Yeah, it really is. It makes me think about, on a practical level, if I'm a person who's listening to this podcast, what I might be starting to think about is, ‘How do I take action’—no pun intended—'on this idea of thinking deeply about learning goals, integrating them into my practice?’ And, for me at least, the first place I went when I read this was to think about shifting what I did in my preparation and my planning. 

Rachel: Uh-hm. But I think when it comes to planning, we need to be thinking, first of all, kind of the three parts that ‘Taking Action’ talks about, is setting a goal that's clear. It should be clear in your mind what the children are learning. And so that can take some reading, right? It can take reading through the session, reading through the overviews, thinking about the learning progressions, always keeping your eye on that mathematical horizon, making those learning goals clear. But then also thinking about the fact that I am situating those learning goals into a learning progression. And I'm thinking about what this lesson that I'm doing on Tuesday, where does it fit in the math journey? So that makes me think about two things. First, what is this lesson building on? What foundation do these students come with that I can build on? But then also, what is it leading toward? 

Rachel: Where are we going from here? And what is the important role that this idea we're looking at today plays in the whole mathematical journey? And then using that as your foundation for your instruction. So if you're finding that the activity that you had planned isn't meeting that learning goal. So it isn't helping you with this clear understanding of what you want them to know. If it isn't helping build toward something that you want them to be able to understand, then what are the changes you need to make? 

Mike: Uh-hm. 

Rachel: What are some things you want to adjust? Where do you want to spend more time? How do you add those conversations? Things like that. 

Mike: Uh-hm. I think you led back to the thing that I wanted to unpack, which is: I worried that at different points in this conversation, people might think, ‘Well, they're just suggesting that learning goals or learning targets don't really have a role.’ We're not saying that. We're saying that they really stretch over time. And I think your description was really elegant in thinking about, what does this session contribute to that larger goal of understanding the meaning of multiplication? What is the intent of this session in helping that development proceed? 

Rachel: Yeah. What is the big idea? What is this leading towards? Because if you don't see it, then that's when you, as a teacher, need to make some decisions. Do I need to do more reading? Do I need to do more understanding about this particular content area? Do I need to adjust the lesson itself? Is there something that I need to change or add or incorporate so that it does play a stronger role? Plus, you know your students. So if we're thinking about this session being a part of a learning progression, and it's building on something they already have, if you feel like maybe they don't have what they need to engage with today's lesson—now I'm going to think about some ways to reengage them with this content. I think especially over the next few years, that's going to be critical. But yeah, I definitely agree with you, Mike. Cause I think NCTM, the authors would say the first thing about a learning target or a learning goal is that it has to be clear, and it has to guide and be the foundation for instruction. And so, they're really important. It's just maybe the way that we've talked about them in the past hasn't been helpful. 

Mike: Yeah. The other place you bring me to, Rachel, is the idea that if I'm really clear on my learning goal, what is it that children will come to understand? And where is this lesson situated in that journey? That actually has a lot of value because I can think about, ‘What are some of the questions that I want to ask to try to either assess where kids are at or advance their thinking?’ Or when I think about what children might do, ‘Which kids do I want to strategically highlight at a closure?’ So I think understanding that learning goal really does have value for folks. It's just a different way of constructing them. And then also thinking, what do you do next? 

Rachel: And I also think, again, I'll take this back to the idea of assessing those learning goals. ’Cause I do think assessment and goals cannot be separated. You're going to always be thinking about that, right? Why set a goal if you don't have any way of knowing whether students are making progress towards that goal? When you establish them in that way and you think about them as less of something that's going to be accomplished by the end of this session, we allow room for students to progress at different ways and learn different things in the class. And then that's when we can have those rich conversations at the end, when we're drawing things together. If every child's going to do everything the exact same way in my classroom, then there's no opportunity for interesting conversations. The interesting conversations happen when kids are doing things differently and making progress in different ways, and heading in different directions towards the same goal. 

Rachel: Then we start learning from each other. We can see what our partner is doing and try to understand what they're doing. That's when interesting math happens. And I want to encourage teachers to feel confident in thinking about these as the idea of a learning goal. And even starting to incorporate this into student-friendly language. You know, a learning goal doesn't have to be written as an ‘I can’ statement for kids to be able to understand it. And I also want teachers to feel confident in their abilities for advocating. Um, when they see learning goals being used in a problematic way, when we see pitfalls and things that we talked about at the beginning happening in their classroom—be confident in your abilities and your knowledge and what you know is best for students. You know your students better than anyone else does. The teacher does. And you know how to think about those individual needs and the individual growth of each child in your classroom. 

Rachel: So rest assured in that confidence. But go to the resources that are available to you as well. When you're struggling with the idea of where these lessons or these concepts or these ideas you're teaching fit, go to the learning progressions, go to the ‘Taking Action’ book, go to the NCTM resources. Um, read your session overviews in your curriculum. Have conversations with your colleagues. Have conversations with the colleagues that teach grades above you and grades below you. That's really critical if we're think about taking away this silo idea of teaching mathematics, we need to start thinking about have these conversations across grade levels. And, and knowing, you know, if you're struggling with where this idea is going, talk to the teacher who comes next. And even just ask them, ‘What reason do you think a child would need to learn this?’ 

Mike: Yeah. 

Rachel: You know, and then they might be able to help you see where it fits in the progression. 

Mike: Well, and I was going to say, look at the scope and sequence and notice, where do the ideas come back? How are they coming back? How are they being developed? And then the icing on the cake would be to do what you said. Let's take a look at how this manifests itself in the next grade or perhaps in the grade prior. 

Rachel: I think that's also a role for math leaders in elementary and in the building instructional coaches, that's a vision that they can help teachers with ’cause they get the opportunity to be in multiple grades in multiple classrooms. And they also have more space to read through the progressions, and they might have more time for those sorts of things. And so I want to push math leaders to be doing that as well. Not just the classroom teachers, help your teachers to see where these ideas carry across into future grades and how they build on previous content and facilitate those conversations. 

Mike: Yeah. You know, I'm so glad that you brought that up. Because it makes me think about, there are some things about the way that we've organized education that just, are givens, right? We have primarily grade-level classrooms, right? And so, I taught first grade for eight years. I intimately knew my first-grade standards. I did not clearly have a vision of necessarily how that was going to play out in second grade and third grade and fourth grade and so on. And I think that's one of the inadvertent problems that we're stuck with is, if we don't have a vertical understanding of: How are these ideas going to support children over time? It might be easy to say, ‘Well, I just need them to be able to do X by the time they get out of third grade.’ Not really understanding that, actually I need to have them understand X, so then they can, in fact, understand all these other concepts that are coming. 

Rachel: I've just seen this year, so much, what is happening in fifth grade is dictating how you understand algebra. You know, it's like … 

Mike: Yes! 

Rachel: … what we see in the fifth-grade standards. If you are not really understanding those concepts, you might be OK for a little while. And then once you're into your algebra classes, you're realizing that all of that foundational knowledge came from what you learned in fifth grade and what you understand about rational numbers. And so, I totally agree. I don't think we've done a good job in education in general of those cross grade-level conversations. But I think we're getting better with this idea of having instructional leaders, instructional coaches that are really there to support the instruction … 

Mike: Yeah. 

Rachel: … that's happening. So I know I work with math leaders and that's one of the things I really encourage them, is not only should they know the entire curriculum or continuum, but how are they helping their classroom teachers understand that? ’Cause I think there's a lot of power in having a teacher spend eight years in first grade and really knowing those standards intimately. But there's also some value in, in once you've taught third grade going back to first grade and realizing, ‘Wow, this is where it was all going.’ 

Mike: Absolutely. Yeah. I had a role at one point where I was a K–12 curriculum director for math.

Rachel: Oh, yeah. 

Mike: And it was the most eye-opening experience because, as you said, you recognize how, if kids walk out of elementary school without a deep foundational understanding—and if it's just really a surface set of performance skills … wow—that catches up with kids when they get into sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. 

Rachel: Yep. For sure. And those concepts become more abstract when we start this idea of variables and thinking about things algebraically. That if you didn't have that foundation in the concrete, the abstract is too much. It's too much to ask of kids. And so then we find ourselves reteaching and wondering, ‘What happened?’ And yeah, I just, I wish more conversations were happening across those grade levels. 

Mike: Absolutely. Well, thank you again, Rachel. 

Rachel: Yeah! 

Mike: It was lovely to have you. I think a lot of folks are going to find this really helpful, and maybe validating in the experience they've had. And also a vision for what they might do in the future. And hopefully we'll have you back at some point. 

Rachel: I'm always here for you. (laughs) 

Mike: Thank you so much. All right, bye bye. 

Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation, dedicated to inspiring and enabling individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.